Cities don't have a monopoly on creativity

Mon, Jun 25, 2012, 01:00

WHEN JONATHAN Raban warned that the West was “in the middle of a furious conflict between the city and the country, in part a class war, in part a generational one,” he could have been talking about a lake in Connemara or a south Galway bog.

“It’s the assault on their dignity that so offends the country- dwellers,” he wrote in the journal Granta four years ago, criticising “the assumption of intellectual superiority by city-based environmentalists, with their mantra of “best available science”.

So there was “the treatment of the logger, proud of his skilled and dangerous job, as a reckless vandal” or “the subordination of rural work to the recreational interests of urban sportsmen and nature lovers,” he wrote.

For loggers, substitute driftnet fishermen, small farmers or turf cutters on the Atlantic seaboard. The impact of hopper machinery to cut turf may be much greater than that of a sleán, but the uneven application of environmental law – permitting a high-pressure gas pipe through a special area of conservation, but banning a farmer from working a protected bog – fuels much resentment in rural communities. As if there wasn’t already enough pressure exerted by relentless globalisation and urbanisation – and yet, it is at such times of pressure that communities can be at their most creative.

Enter the artist, according to contributors at a workshop on “creativity at the edge” in NUI Galway last week.

“We have, historically, this popular idea that creativity is associated with the city, as in a melting pot of cultures and ideas which generate art, entertainment and technology, but that’s not quite the reality on the ground,” said Prof Mike Woods of Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Geography and Earth Science.

“This historical perception seems to influence economic planning, urban development policy and this drives a policy towards creative industries which excludes those working on the edge,” he points out.

“I’m not just talking about the artist or writer who seeks isolation in a rural idyll, but the fact that communities experiencing changes in agriculture and loss of population have often responded in very creative ways,” he says.

“There is a blindness in the urban mindset about what we regard as creative industries,” he continued, citing as an example projects which David Butler, co-ordinator of LifeWorkArt and of Newcastle University’s arts and cultures school is associated with.

Butler, who also attended the NUIG workshop, co-directs Intersections, a research initiative involving public art which focuses on the experience rather than the outcome.

“Northumberland is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Britain, but it has three large conurbations, including Newcastle,” Butler explained. “Artists who have graduated from third-level are encouraged to stay on and use the college resources, while working with communities in rural areas.” He cites three examples of this: the Holy Island partnership on Lindisfarne, established by the island’s 70 residents who felt a need to create a sustainable project beyond tourism; a collaboration with Allenheads Contemporary Arts, based in a restored Victorian schoolhouse in the highest village in England; and the Visual Arts in Rural Communities project in Tarset, a small parish which hosts a year-long artists’ residency.

“Artists can be both lateral thinkers and very resourceful people, so we’re talking about projects that don’t necessarily require a huge amount of public funding,” he says.

“A recession can be good for art, in that there can be access to unused work spaces that might not otherwise become available, but there is also a problem when there is a mindset that regards arts and culture as a luxury,” he says. “If you have this attitude in somewhere like Galway there is nothing to sustain the tourism that has developed.”

It’s an argument that was made by the Western Development Commission (WDC) in a 2009 report on the creative sector in the west. Defining “creative” as everything from crafts, fashion, publishing, music, visual and performing arts to web design, gaming and animation, the WDC said that the “catalytic” effects of the sector could drive “innovation” in the regional economy with national benefits.

NUIG economic geographer Dr Pat Collins, who worked on the WDC report and also spoke at the NUIG workshop, is co-ordinating a new “creative edge” project which involves universities, industry bodies and development agencies on the island of Ireland, as well as Finland and Sweden. Its brief is to identify the current breadth and future scope of the creative economy in peripheral regions.

The EU-funded project, due to be initiated during the Galway Arts Festival, notes that “cultural and creative industries” represent “one of Europe’s most dynamic sectors”, contributing around

2.6 per cent to the EU GDP and employing around five million people across the European community . . . with potential for much more.”

ONE ARTIST’S RESPONSE

“What’s the most annoying thing about living here, and what would you change?”

When artist David Lisser posed this question to residents of the Pennine village of Allenheads in Northumberland, the consensus was “midges”. And so created the “midge burger”, full of protein and ready to eat at his stall in the village summer fair.

“David had identified a concern about food, as the village is remote and had been cut off for three weeks during a previous winter,” Newcastle University’s David Butler explained. Fear about lack of supplies and the plethora of midges seemed like an interesting contrast, given the protein benefits of insects. He created a show featuring a fictional futuristic nomadic people called the Midgecatchers who travelled to Allenheads every summer.

As Butler notes, artists don’t have to confine their medium to canvas or paints when there is also rich material in food.

Lisser’s location in Allenheads was also central to the success of the idea, and a prime example of Butler’s thesis that “the further from the centre, as in London, the more creative one can be.”

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